Category Archives: Balancing Acts

Welcome to Podcasts

Podcasts. They’re the new digital frontier of talk radio, full of informative content. The perfect way to kill time on a long commute. Trust me, I would know.

But podcasts aren’t all non-fiction in focus. There is a small but growing population of podcasts devoted to telling fictional stories, like the radio serials of yore. Move over The Shadow. Make way for Welcome to Night Vale.

In truth, we at Fictorians have been remiss. This post is long overdue. Night Vale has a been a Big Deal for several years now. Something like a local radio news show as written by Stephen King, Welcome to Night Vale tells the story of, in their words, “A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.”

With a healthy dose of both horror and humor combined with a sneaky dash of heart, Night Vale has brought audio storytelling into a new generation. It’s a process that entails some challenges. As I mentioned, the show is done in the format of a local news radio station, only set in a town where every conspiracy theory is real and anything horrific you can imagine is probably happening at that moment. Whether it’s mysterious hooded figures marching and chanting at the local sports stadium, the discovery of a mysterious subterranean civilization beneath lane five of the local bowling alley, a doorless and windowless library inhabited by monstrous librarians that defy sane description, or a city council that appears to be comprised of the same group of individuals that founded the town several hundred years in the past, Night Vale is given all the worldbuilding depth a storyteller could ever want.

The radio host, Cecil Palmer, is the voice of the podcast and the radio show within it. Because the show is broadcast from the Night Vale Community Radio station, all action that doesn’t take place at the Night Vale Community Radio Station must be described second-hand by Cecil, who is not generally witnessing it at the time. This flies directly in the face of that age-old writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” With the exception of when Cecil broadcasting on-location or is manning his mobile broadcasting studio, all he is doing is telling you, the listener, about local events, the community calendar, and whatever existential nightmare threatens to destroy his beloved Night Vale this week.

To make matters even more challenging, the climax of an episode’s plot generally occurs “offscreen” during the news show’s “weather” segment, which (contrary to its name) is always a song from an independent music artist. Once the weather concludes, Cecil returns and explains to his listeners how the crisis was resolved, and the episode wraps.

It’s a recipe for storytelling disaster if handled poorly. Yet somehow, Welcome to Night Vale’s writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, make it work. Much of this credit goes to Cecil Baldwin (the actor behind Cecil Palmer). Without someone with his gravitas (his deep voice recalls trusted anchors of days gone by even as his frequent weirdness and goofiness reminds us what era it really is), the show’s format would absolutely fall apart. But the writing style is pitch-perfect for the format, and framing the story as a news segment, something we are all used to hearing told to us in the past tense, is a big part of why it works as well. This serves as yet another example of how for every rule of writing, there exist innumerable exceptions that succeed just fine.

The podcast picks and chooses its conventions well. In the past, seasons would generally have an overarching plot that played out in the background of the more focused, single-episode stories. Only in the last few episodes of the “season” (which spans a full year of real-world time, roughly 25 episodes, much like a network TV season), would the overarching story move into the foreground and come to a head. With the most recent season, they have broken the stories into a series of three-parters which have little connectivity beyond the characters and setting. And in the best tradition of shows like The Simpsons, they’ve populated their town with lots of quirky, lovable characters who grow and change with time.

But the show also experiments quite a bit within the confines of the format as well. In one episode, they recommend wearing headphones, because they play with which ear you can hear the audio feed from. It proves effectively creepy and disorienting, especially if you are listening alone. In one early episode, one of my favorites, they address the entire episode (titled “A Story About You”) to you, the listener, casting you as one particular resident of Night Vale who is having, shall we say, a bad day.

They’ve also created a series of live shows, where attendees can go experience a specially written, extra-long episode which changes every tour. These episodes are written specifically with live audience participation in mind, and with the assumption that attendees may never have listened to the show before. I’ve been to three of these shows myself, and they are a unique experience while still being utterly Night Vale.

Storytelling is a constantly evolving art form. Sometimes, an old form of storytelling, the oldest form, in fact, comes back in a new and different format. Some things about it change while others stay the same, but if done well, the total result is something new and special.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Night Vale quotes, and quotes in general, of all time:

“Before everything, before even humans, there were stories. A creature at a fire conjuring a world with nothing but its voice and a listener’s imagination. And now, me, and thousands like me, in little booths and rooms and mics and screens all over the world, doing the same for a family of listeners, connected as all families are, primarily by the stories we tell each other.

And after, after fire, and death, or whatever happens next, after the wiping clean or the gradual decay, after the after…when there are only a few creatures left, there will be one at a fire, telling a story to what family it has left. It was the first thing, and it will be the last.”

Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 71, “The Registry of Middle School Crushes”

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath. He lives with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Obstacles May Be Closer Than They Appear

One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever received was that if you want it to be your occupation, you need to treat it as a business. That doesn’t mean that you have to have a business plan — though it doesn’t hurt — but you do have to set regular working hours, make goals, and keep them. Part of that, especially when self-publishing, is to set a publishing schedule and to stick to it. However, sometimes keeping that schedule is not always possible.

I do realize that there has been a great deal of discussion about publishing delays lately, and I’m not going to give any opinions on someone else’s schedule. It’s none of my business whether or not (insert name of big author) is publishing a book this year, next year, or at all. The only person whose publication schedule I can comment on with any authority is my own and as it so happens I’ve had to make some difficult choices of my own.

Knowing that my debut novel was launching last June, I started writing the next book in the series at a writing retreat the month before. I managed to write the first third that week and figured that at my normal pace, I could probably finish it by the end of the summer, October by the latest. That would have given my beta readers plenty of time to read it, and time for me to put together a short story collection (and possibly release it in the spring). It was also plenty of time for revisions so I could release book 2 in the summer. Well, we ended up being really busy and short handed at the day job over the summer and that left me too exhausted to get much done on the book. It took me the entire summer to write two chapters. That’s it. That’s all I got done.

As far as progress goes that’s dismal. However, I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I did get something done and it was impossible for me to do more. All of this meant that I had two choices. If I wanted to finish on schedule, I’d pretty much have to work myself to death for eight months. The other option was to put off the short story collection for another year, and postpone the novel release until sometime in 2019. It seems pretty straight forward as far as decisions go but what of the fans? There are people eagerly awaiting the next Oneiroi War book. Plus there’s the reader anxiety that seems to pop up these days anytime an author talks about a delay. On the other hand, I really don’t want to work myself to death for that long. It’s not healthy and the extra pressure would probably cause me to hate the book in the end because of what I had to go through to complete it.

I really don’t want to work myself to death and I don’t want to hate the book (because it’s really awesome) so I chose the latter but I do still feel bad about it — which is a bit insane. I shouldn’t feel guilty for putting my health and wellbeing first but letting down my fans still isn’t something that I wanted to do. It certainly isn’t something that I want to do lightly or make a habit of.

So what does all of this have to do with making goals? I think one thing that often is forgotten is that when setting goals it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Yes, we can definitely keep our goals realistic, but that still isn’t going to prepare us — or our readers — for when things go sideways. When they do go sideways, it’s important to reassess the situation, and adjust the goal accordingly. Most importantly, it’s important not to see it as a failure; especially if circumstances were out of your control and you did your best in spite of it. After all, a goal is not a promise or a contract. It’s a determination to attain. The goal is still attainable…it’ll just take a bit longer than you originally planned and that’s okay.

 

The Goal Post

I’m a football fan. Apparently that’s somewhat rare in the world of writers. I love a lot of different sports, including baseball, golf, basketball and swimming. By some crazy coincidence I am writing this post smack in the middle of the NFL playoffs. And this month’s Fictorian’s theme is all about goals.

So, this post is about goals, ergo, it is the goal post. See what I did there?

OK, I’m sorry. Still, it’s a decent lead in, and the sports reference is useful too. Because I happen to be one of those people who think goals are a critically important part of life. Goals give us something to strive for, something to measure our performance against, and something to appreciate when they are achieved.

Sports is famous for setting goals. If you talk to just about any world-class athlete, they will pepper you with their goals. Each goal achieved is one more step forward in their quest to achieve the greatness to which they aspire. Each goal achieved opens the door to new goals beyond.

I approach writing that way. Well, I approach a lot of things that way. But writing is one of them. That doesn’t mean I always achieve goals, but if I don’t achieve a goal, I don’t abandon my dreams, I re-calibrate and reset. Then I work toward my new goals. The more goals I achieve, the closer I am to the dreams I have.

Goals can be far-reaching and ambitious, like “I’m going to write a novel.” Or they can be direct and practical, like “I’m going to write 1,000 words tonight.” Then, the next night, “I’m going to write 1,000 words tonight.” If you string enough successful 1,000 word nights together, you can achieve your over-arching goal, “I’m going to write a novel.”

When I started writing, I used to keep a spreadsheet of how many words I wrote every night. I had nightly, weekly, and monthly goals for words written. If I came up short one night on a nightly goal, I could buckle down the next night and get back on track for a weekly goal.

Some people give themselves rewards for reaching goals. That’s fine, it probably helps some people, but for me the main reward for reaching a goal was… you guessed it, reaching the goal.

I’m just now wrapping up my fourth novel. I’m already planning my fifth. I remember when my loftiest goal was “I’m going to write a novel,” and that goal seemed light-years away and nearly impossible to reach. In truth, it wasn’t really that much effort, it was mostly all about sticking to my goals until I achieved them.

One of my favorite Robert Browning quotes is “Ah that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That’s one way of saying that goals can help us achieve great things. It’s similar to “Reach for the stars, if you fall short, you might still reach the moon.”

Set some goals. Make them specific. Make them meaningful. Track your progress. Reward your successes. That’s not a bad way to get through life in general, and it just might finish that novel you’ve been working on forever.

Holiday Reflections

Just got back from a whirlwind trip to Colorado and back for Christmas. A major part of the trip was to carry all my daughter’s stuff up there from Arkansas since she has just moved into an apartment. That meant hauling my trailer, which keeps my max highway speed somewhere around 65mph, or less. We left Saturday morning, got there about 2am Sunday morning after dealing with blizzard conditions for the last four or five hours (guessing why I left Colorado?) and almost being the victim of a spinout in front of us on I-70. Then after spending Christmas eve unpacking and helping my daughter set up her apartment, we spent most of Christmas day doing Christmas stuff. Then we headed back around 6pm, taking two days to get back since I have to get to work tomorrow morning and didn’t want to deal with coming home at 2am and getting up at 6am to go to work.

So…

Image result for Frodo it's over

Now, having said all that, I do have some thoughts about the holiday season in general, and specifically as a writer.

I find it difficult to write during holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are so many demands on a person’s time, between shopping, getting together with friends or family, cooking, driving from one place to another and back… I generally consider Thanksgiving through New Years as “down time” and any writing I can get done is a bonus.

I figure there’s more than enough stress in the holiday season without adding writing 2,000 words a day to the list. I know there are many writers who have no problem with that. I don’t appear to be one of them. At least not this year.

If other writers are struggling with the same thing, my advice would be to try to avoid the stress of the additional demands of self-imposed deadlines on projects that are not committed, especially not financially committed. Just as business folk are reminded frequently that nobody ever wished they spent more time at the office when on their death bed, even writers can look back and wish they had spent more time with their families. Especially on the holidays.